Alabama spring practice: What we’ve learned about every position at the midway point

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For Alabama’s new coaching staff, installing new schemes has been the main priority of the opening sessions of their first spring practice. But at the midway point of spring ball, the pads are on and players are beginning to separate themselves.

“We’re promoting competition, we’re seeking competition,” offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan said on Tuesday via WJOX. “We want guys to battle, we want guys to improve. I see that at every position. I think there’s certainly guys that have had experience and had great snaps throughout their career. Then there’s other young players that are hungry and eager to create a role for themselves.”

This is a critical point in the spring calendar because players’ retention of the installation will be tested soon as the team prepares to start scrimmaging. This Saturday will be the first scrimmage, but it will only feature isolated situational work. Players who can operate confidently in that setting will emerge as serious candidates to play, and there are no shortage of spots open at several positions.

“The guys are doing a really good job,” coach Kalen DeBoer said. “We’re throwing a lot at them. Throwing a lot at them really fast. (Last Thursday) was some red zone stuff. It just keeps coming. (This) Saturday will be even more. We want to try to get ready for a scrimmage to where we can go up and down the field at any down and distance and every part of the field, we can go run plays and see where we’re at.”

Below, a look at the latest spring developments at every position on both sides of the ball.


Quarterback: One of the most noteworthy tidbits from the last week was DeBoer’s note that Jalen Milroe has exclusively taken the first-team quarterback reps this spring. In some ways that’s not surprising given Milroe’s status as the incumbent starter, and it signals Milroe has taken another step forward to keep the other quarterbacks from pushing for starter snaps.

“We have some great ones in the room,” DeBoer said last week via Tide 100.9. “Jalen’s certainly been headlining the room and doing a great job there.”

Sheridan is pushing for competition at QB2. Ty Simpson has the slight edge in experience and is currently handling the bulk of the backup reps, but redshirt freshmen Austin Mack and Dylan Lonergan remain intriguing options. This spring has been especially important for Mack, who is still 17 years old and going through his first spring practice after enrolling at Washington last summer. The upcoming scrimmages will determine who can confidently operate the offense in a game-like setting, but the overall development of the group is trending in a positive direction.

“All those guys — Austin, Dylan, Ty, Jalen — each guy is improving,” Sheridan said. “I thought we took a stride (on Tuesday). We’ve had some ups and downs, certainly as you would expect, installing a new scheme and a new offense. But those kids are great.”

Running back: The backfield competition is a healthy one, with Justice Haynes and Jam Miller continuing to lead the way. The players are close and want the other to succeed but are keeping that competitive edge about them; if Miller leads one drill, Haynes will lead the next, and so on. Behind them, Richard Young and Daniel Hill are getting plenty of reps to round out the four scholarship backs, but there’s a clear top two at the midway point.

Receivers: The position took a big hit on Tuesday according to Tide Illustrated, which reported that sophomore Jalen Hale suffered a leg injury and left practice in an ambulance. At this time the severity of the injury is unknown. Additionally, Germie Bernard has missed practice time over the last week due to injury. Two names to watch in place of those missing starter-level receivers: Jaren Hamilton and Emmanuel Henderson.

Hamilton can fill a role at outside receiver, and Henderson, known as one of if not the fastest player on the team, has become a viable option thanks to his quick grasp of the playbook.

“(Henderson) has really become a guy that can be counted on to understand the why of what we’re doing,” position coach JaMarcus Shepherd said. “To this point he’s been everything I’ve wanted him to be.”

Right now, it’s too early to designate starters or even definitive roles as the players work to learn the entire playbook and route tree. Expect more clarity in the summer/fall.

Also of note: Shepherd confirmed that Caleb Odom, formerly listed as a tight end, is now a full-on receiver. By all accounts, he has continued to look the part.

Tight ends: When listening to DeBoer and Sheridan talk about their offense’s goal to maximizing players’ ability, tight end is the position that immediately comes to mind. The group received a boost in the last week with CJ Dippre returning from injury. Dippre is an every-down tight end, Robbie Ouzts has been known primarily as a blocker but has turned some heads in the passing game this spring and Washington transfer Josh Cuevas has started to come on as of late. Right now, those appear to be the top three.

“He’s awesome,” position coach Bryan Ellis said of Cuevas. “I think at the tight end position, it starts and ends with toughness, you got to have courage. In this league, it’s even more about that, and he has plenty of it. I’m very fortunate that (DeBoer) brought him with him.”

Offensive line: The most competition, and the biggest question marks, can be found on the offensive line — mainly at tackle. Last week, redshirt freshman Miles McVay saw first-team reps at right tackle in his battle with fellow redshirt freshman Wilkin Formby. Sheridan described the play at tackle as “not where it needs to be, but improving.” Whether Kadyn Proctor’s presumptive return to Alabama ends up happening or not, expect Alabama to target the offensive line in the spring portal window.

“Even if you just look at our scholarship numbers, we are short there,” DeBoer said. “You need so many to get through a season. Those guys are getting a lot of reps, they’re getting a lot of work. They’re all getting better. I’m really proud of the way they’re just grinding and getting after it every day. But scholarship numbers for the offensive line in general are still just below where we’d like to be going into the fall.”

At center, the competition between Parker Brailsford and James Brockermeyer has become a spring storyline. Both players are seeing first-team reps this spring, but last week’s viewing period featured Brailsford centering the first team with Elijah Pritchett and Tyler Booker to his left and Jaeden Roberts and McVay to his right. The second team was (left to right, Naquil Betrand, Olaus Alinen, Brockermeyer, Roq Montgomery and Formby.

Another headline from last week was Ohio State coach Ryan Day’s suggestion that transfer center Seth McLaughlin’s snapping issues last season at Alabama could’ve been a cadence issue. According to DeBoer, it hasn’t been a problem this spring.

“I guess I only can really go off of what we’ve done right now,” DeBoer said. “And we haven’t had any problems there. We use our cadence and it’s the clap cadence. Jalen (Milroe), all the quarterbacks have done a good job. I think, from what I see, we haven’t really had any problems at all.”


Defensive line: Jaheim Oatis’ return date from an undisclosed injury is “up in the air,” according to DeBoer. Fortunately, Alabama’s defensive line is a deep group, and Oatis’ absence creates opportunity for players like James Smith and Damon Payne Jr. to earn more reps inside. Once he returns, the Tide figure to have one of the better run-stopping units in the SEC.

One player who is starting to separate a bit at the Bandit position is Jah-Marien Latham. The senior is a gifted pass rusher and has benefited from a strong offseason and a scheme change. He weighs around 270 pounds but changed his body composition over the offseason and is starting to show versatility outside of just pass rushing.

“I have more freedom to showcase that I’ve got speed off the edge, power off the edge (and) I can win inside,” Latham said. “I can drop into coverage. So it’s just allowing me to just show everything that I have in the bag.

“I love coming out to practice now just knowing I can do what I wanna do. As long as it fits the scheme, I can do what I wanna do. It kind of feels like high school all over again.”

The competition for snaps at Bandit is fierce with Latham, LT Overton and Keon Keeley among others vying for playing time. Keeley continues his work with the defensive line and is looking more comfortable by the day. He earned several kudos from coaches during last week’s viewing period.  Senior Tim Smith has appeared consistently with the first-team line throughout spring.

Linebacker: At inside backer, Deontae Lawson and Jihaad Campbell continue to lead. Both players grew so much from last season’s experience and are operating with more confidence. The battle for the third linebacker spot continues between Jeremiah Alexander and Justin Jefferson; in the latest viewing period, Alexander was third in position drills with Jefferson fourth. Elsewhere, freshman Sterling Dixon is out with an undisclosed injury, but it isn’t deemed serious.

Ahead of spring practice, outside linebacker Keanu Koht seemed like a player who could take a step forward, and he has started to do just that. Koht turned a corner in the latter part of last season and has continued that momentum through the offseason, impressing in workouts. Position coach Christian Robinson noted that he recruited Koht as an inside linebacker out of high school, signaling he has the off-ball ability needed for the new Wolf position. Senior Quandarrius Robinson is still leading at the position, but Koht has become a serious candidate.

“Athletically he’s a freak,” defensive coordinator Kane Wommack said. “He does some things, the way he can bend off the edge, his explosive ability. He plays with an extremely high motor right now, and he is grasping what we are doing from a schematic standpoint. You see, everybody’s making mistakes, but you see guys correct things from one day to the next, and if he can continue to do that, I really like his trajectory right now.”

The younger linebackers — Qua Russaw, Yhonzae Pierre and Jayshawn Ross — are flashing the athletic traits needed to see time but are still behind the veterans. That’s not to say one or multiple won’t see the field this fall, but it will likely come in a special teams capacity before working their way into the defense.

Secondary: The back end of the defense has changed its rotations often to give players a fair look this spring. Malachi Moore, Domani Jackson and Keon Sabb are entrenched within the first team, and two freshmen are seeing a steady dose of first-team reps: Zabien Brown and Red Morgan.

Morgan has been getting consistent first-team reps since the start of spring practice, and his emergence in the slot has allowed Moore to move back to deep safety opposite Sabb. Brown was a highly-touted cornerback recruit who entered the program college-ready after starting multiple years at Southern California prep powerhouse Mater Dei. Alabama will likely seek out cornerback help in the portal to add experience, but Brown’s progression provides quality competition into the fall.

“(Brown and Morgan) certainly have been highlighted throughout these first five practices,” DeBoer said. “Red made a nice play or two (on Thursday) and Zabien’s been super consistent, really beyond what you would expect for guys that are so young. It’s been really positive with those guys.”

Junior DeVonta Smith was primed for a big spring but has been limited by injury. Even in limited action, he has impressed the coaching staff. Once fully healthy, he’ll be a regular part of the first-team DB rotation.

“I’m excited about Smitty,” Wommack said. “I think he can cover. He’s a big frame, 200-plus pounds. Shown some physicality as we’ve started to put the pads on. And I think he can process and make checks and adjustments.

“That Husky position is so critical to what we do because we ask a lot out of that player: to cover man-to-man, to blitz off the edge, to play zone coverage, to sometimes put down in the box, we’re asking quite a bit. And so it needs a very versatile skill set, and I think Smitty has that.”

Smith’s injury has created a bit of a ripple effect with Morgan getting more first-team work, Tony Mitchell and others needing reps to create depth and Moore moving back to safety. Should Moore need to move back to the slot, he can do so without needing as many reps. Once Smith reaches full speed, he’s the likely starter due to his experience, but Morgan’s workload and playmaking is a strong sign for depth, he’s an ideal candidate for the sixth defensive back spot in a dime package.

On the second team, a herd of freshmen are gaining valuable experience against the top end of the roster due to the offseason attrition. Jaylen Mbakwe and Zavier Mincey are two players that have stuck out in media viewing periods. Mbakwe added significant muscle to his frame and at 6-3, Mincey is a towering defensive back that flashes his athleticism often. Both are still learning the nuances of playing cornerback at the college level — Mbakwe is converting from quarterback and Mincey is cross-training at safety — but they are exciting prospects.

Peyton Woodyard, another product of a Southern California powerhouse in St. John Bosco, is benefitting from learning under Moore and Sabb at safety. Alabama’s defensive back group could change between now and the fall, but Woodyard is positioning himself to compete for a spot on the two-deep.

“I love Peyton,” defensive backs coach Colin Hitschler said. “He’s grinding, he’s working, he’s focused. He’s working with the 2s right now and making a lot of plays. Can’t say enough about him.”

(Photo: Gary Cosby Jr. / Tuscaloosa News / USA Today)

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